Sanders is No Free-Trader

Democrat Seeks to Target Trade Deals, Corporate Mergers, Wall Street Speculation

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke at campaign events in Council Bluffs and Red Oak, Iowa, on Tuesday and Wednesday. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

RED OAK, Iowa (DTN) -- As campaigning wrapped up leading into the Christmas holiday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders drew big crowds in western Iowa with an anti-corporate, anti-trade message that resonated with his audience but runs counter to the views of most farm and commodity organizations.

While the presidential campaign has been going on for more than a year, the Iowa caucuses are now 40 days out. More Iowans will increasingly pay attention to presidential contenders once the holidays pass.

Sanders wrapped up campaign events up and down western Iowa -- the more conservative side of the Hawkeye state -- on Tuesday and Wednesday. The 74-year-old Vermont senator campaigning for the Democratic nomination carried a decidedly populist message as the candidate looking out for the little guy, the underdog and the working class. He champions raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, equal pay for women, paid leave for new parents and free college or trade education.

"I will continue to talk about the need to rebuild the disappearing middle class," he said.

Sanders drew about 1,500 people at an event Tuesday night at a community college in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Before Sanders spoke, a pair of local Democrats and union members warmed up the crowd by declaring that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would exacerbate the trend of higher-paying manual labor jobs going overseas. Sanders made it clear that not only has he opposed free-trade agreements in the past, but he is helping lead the effort against TPP in the Senate.

"We just have to tell corporate America if they want us to buy their products, they had better damned well start manufacturing those products in the United States," he said.

The Obama administration is campaigning aggressively for Congress to approve the pact. Most agricultural groups support the Trans-Pacific Partnership and are pushing for Congress to approve the trade deal. At an event with farm broadcasters last month, leaders of the American Soybean Association, National Pork Producers Council, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, National Corn Growers Association and the U.S. Grains Council all talked about why the Pacific trade deal is critical to their individual producers or commodities. A few groups, notably the National Farmers Union, have come out against the trade pact.

In Red Oak, a man in the crowd who declined later to give his name for an article, asked Sanders how he got support from farmers in Vermont and what would Sanders do to deal with consolidation in agriculture. The questioner specifically pointed to concerns about agribusiness mergers, including the Dow-DuPont merger and the possibility that Syngenta and Monsanto could merge. Sanders said he is used to representing dairy, beef and vegetable farmers in his state.

"I'm a very, very, very strong proponent of family-based agriculture, not factory farming or corporate farming," Sanders said.

Sanders said policymakers in his home state of Vermont have worked to keep farming centered on families and he would carry those policies to the White House. On agricultural mergers, Sanders brought the topic back to the need to break up the largest corporations by enforcing antitrust laws. "In sector after sector in our economy, you are seeing fewer and fewer multinational corporations dominate those sectors," Sanders said. He added, "A handful of companies dominate and it's not just agriculture, it's Wall Street."

Southwest Iowa is one of the more conservative parts of the state, but Sanders did draw some farmers to his events. Clarinda farmer Mike Pattavina tilled "BERNIE" into a harvested field last month and brought a framed picture of his farm for Sanders to sign in Red Oak. Pattavina said he thinks Sanders would be better for the environment than other candidates. Pattavina also said he supports legalization of marijuana because it would provide another cash crop that Pattavina thinks would take fewer chemicals and nutrients to grow. "It gives us a third crop to plant that doesn't use pesticides," he said. "It would create clean jobs. We have a lot to lose if we don't get on the bandwagon."

Sanders supports removing marijuana as a class 1 drug, effectively decriminalizing it on the federal level.

Sanders told his crowds that his message focuses on the "grotesque level of income inequality in this country." He repeated his vows to take on the "billionaire class." Corporate America is the reason incomes have stagnated. Sanders quoted that just 20 families control more money than the bottom 50% of Americans. He plans to reverse that trend with higher taxes on wealthier people.

Sanders added later, "This is what we call, brothers and sisters, a rigged economy. Working people are working longer and longer hours, and sinking further and further into poverty. Almost all of the wealth and income goes to the top 1%"

Tax and regulatory policies favor corporations and Wall Street banks because the country's campaign-finance system has become corrupt since the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, Sanders said. Still, Sanders sees himself convincing Congress to impose a $70-billion-a-year tax on Wall Street speculation to fund his plan for college education.

Sanders also proposes spending $1 trillion over five years to upgrade the country's infrastructure that Sanders projects would add 13 million jobs. The six-year, $325 billion highway bill Congress passed in November would pale in comparison to Sanders' proposal.

In the context of addressing climate change, Sanders talked about shifting away from fossil fuels and supporting renewable energy, both in electric power and biofuels. He noted 29% of Iowa's electrical power comes from wind and leading the country in biofuels

"We have got to learn from Iowa and we've got to be more aggressive all over this country."

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

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Chris Clayton